While visiting my younger daughter in Philadelphia, we had a lovely lunch at a vegetarian restaurant in Southampton. Food, fresh, interestingly imagined and created, tingled our taste buds so our conversation veered towards eating. We agreed that we often finish whatever is placed on our plates, whether we are full or not.Howard contributed that he had read that while eating, one’s body “ sighs” to indicate the tummy is full. I recalled that boomers, growing up, were often taunted with “ Children are starving in Africa( or India), so eat up” ; or perhaps Jewish culture that is subsumed with food remains the culprit in encouraging the clearing of plates of every morsel. And how often have we contrasted our heaping excessive groaning tables to the dainty food offerings of perhaps a glass of wine and a tiny tray of artful appetizers that suffices at weddings or engagement parties for other religious groups. Yet, both my daughter and I concluded what we really enjoyed was the snap, crackle and pop of textures, the combinations, contrasts and qualities that tantalize both the pallet and the eye. As well, sitting down together encourages dialogue, to chat and extend views , a natural conversation opportunity, but food the rallying point and reason.
My mind sought precedents of my children’s earliest eating days, and their predilections. Remembering her sister as a fussy eater, I recalled seeking temptations for her tastebuds. Over forty years ago, I had sought out sweetbreads for her, peeling the membranes, and dismissive of the cost, purchased them at a high end food boutique,Neal’s, – way before Whole Foods or Pusateris were on the horizon. But even earlier I had consulted food guru Adele Davis whose insights were truly the backbone of conscious eating before foodies erupted into waves of cognoscenti of where and what to eat healthy.
I’ve tried to resurrect from my mind favourite dinners as we had, over the years, sought out Michelin meals , mouth burning offerings in Thailand, macaroons in France, Peking duck in China, thick pea soup on the cruise deck of an Alaska ship while watching the ice bergs crash into the water, seafood on the shores of Hawaii(soft winds seductively blowing), sophisticated and smart lunches and dinners in almost impossible- to-reserve locales in New York, Chicago and LA, along with the iron chef properties from San Diego and Las Vegas, those homemade pastas from Zucca and Tutti Matti in Toronto: where they really know how to turn out perfect pasta…and my mind like a spinning wheel could not land on which I loved most.
What does stand out,however, is the marriage of meal and atmosphere, especially an evening under the velvety sky of Ayers Rock, Uluru, sampling alligator and Barramudi, in the darkness so thick you could feel it wrapping itself around you, the sprinkling of stars turned upside down from our home in Canada.My mother’s roasted chicken surrounded by perky orange carrots and perfect little burnished potatoes still simmering in its tomatoey juices while we pulled over to a cool roadside for a lunch under shady trees. Or my husbands 70 th birthday at On the Twenty in Ontario wine country, tables overflowing with flowers, all of us attired in white: cottons, ruffles, buttoned downs, embroidered, a room separate from the dining hall, our own guitar musician, and the children and grandchildren bopping during courses, food individually selected for each participant for the evening feast along with non ending wine, a perfect evening where the rain and humidity cleared so the event could shine ( and my hair not frizz).But the entrees, grown locally and lovingly cooked.
To celebrate an event, the food must, of course be delicious, but the beauty of the setting, the attitude and warmth of camaraderie must also coalesce. I’m thinking too of my backyard garden party when to formally present myself as a doctor of education, I planned a dinner with a three woman band so we could dance at the edge of the pool under the awnings of pristine tents. The array of white flowers winking on the table, an assortment of food choices, attentive waiters, the relaxed conversation and laughter of friends and family that stretched into a night of speeches and casual chatter. My kids were young and funny and the night swelled with love.
Behind these self directed events are often months of planning, for me, intrinsic to the meal. I relish the background search, deciding which textures of blooms and arrangements will highlight the tables just as I settle on which dress will make me feel special. For Howard’s 70 th, I surprised myself by choosing a dress that I had actually bought years before for another event. It was chic, beautiful, comfortable and also housed delicious memories. Even writing or choosing a perfect invitation for the event is a pleasure, a meaningful compliment to all the details. Each detail contributing to the climax: a perfect meal.
For the house party for our 40 th anniversary at my son’s, I knew my elder daughter had spent hours on the phone with the caterers ensuring a meal non pareil. And although I regretted how stiff my hair was that night, the interplay of family, food, photographs was celebratory and unforgettable.
I’m trying to recollect the many meals eaten with and without family, but quiet dinners at specially identified and researched locales and although I do review them now, they appear to me as fresh uncut pages from a new book. Allo was exceptional with multilayered and unique combinations of flavours( a birthday treat arranged by my son, requiring three months of reservation), but so too was George’s pizza on DuPont or College with my uncle so many many years back when I was still a teen in oversized glasses- different firsts for experimenting with untried tastes and trying new things.
But then too, guests of my famous great uncle Joe the gambler-auctioneer, my family vacationing in California, was treated to the impossibly posh Sportsman’s Lodge where I tiny on a tiny bridge caught a trout in the stream beneath that was immediately cooked and presented to the table for dinner. And will I , an untested taster of 15 who had never eaten in a restaurant in Toronto, let alone non- kosher food, ever forget my premier ( and last) MacDonald’s burger and milkshake so thick it could barely be sucked up a straw, after sunning with my cousins on Hermosa Beach in California?
And how can I forget my first Risttoffle feast in Amsterdam with my aunt and uncle when I was barely 18, followed years later by my daughter’s obsession with fries, gleaned at Little Pissing Boy, somewhere near Dam Square, she maybe five then?Or the three month sabbatical where we frequented Il Castillo for Sunday night suppers in the hills surrounding Montobueno in Italy where The Red Brigade was rumoured to hide?
And this European adventure recalls Berlin last summer where the chef with the man bun opened the door a smidgeon at Nobelhart and Schmutzig and we were served ten impossibly fresh specialties such as raw eel and liquorice ice cream, shaved pine cones…
I suppose I am concluding that there are the unusual moments, the firsts that catch in our mouths , that cause us to stop and savour something exceptionally unique for its flavour, its awakening or piquing or even confounding our senses, pondering how does this vegetable, this lowly single egg( from True Foods), this combination of flavours makes me arrest my salvaging, my chewing, my swallowing, my mastication to really parse and reflect on what is being ground to pulp between my teeth- and years later, search for evidence in my head full of so many meals.
But underlying all of this eating and dining business is the presence of not just an enhancing milieu but a milieu rendered enhancing by those ones best loved, and being able to share over a meal time that stretches and clothes those moments with being together, chattering, coming together, gazing and observing how life goes, how those persons relate to you, how they are faring in life, and seeing the food before you as a rallying point for exchanges that continue to bind.
But hey, tasty food helps immensely.